Yay! It’s July. Holiday time! On the one hand you jump for joy, immensely looking forward to having a few weeks of a well-deserved and long-awaited time off in the summer. But the minute you realise you are still in 2022 and tight sealed Hong Kong, you suddenly experience a bout of depression. It’s holiday time but your are not going anywhere. That is not anywhere you would like. But c’est la vie. As they say, if life gives you lemons, make a lemonade. So here’s my creative last summer’s cocktail spurred out of necessity.
The first thing I did to beat the heavy Hong Kong blues was visit neighbourhoods and areas I’d never been to and had been always planning to explore with my camera. Frankly speaking, it didn’t bring much enjoyment but at least it filled my days with some purpose. I visited fishing villages – for example Lei Yue Mun, Stanley – one of the richest areas in Hong Kong, Repulse Bay – a truly repulsive beach, Aberdeen and whatnot. When it became crystal clear that this wasn’t the way to go, I took a smarter approach and booked a couple staycations. It filled me with hope that I could experience a hint of something that remotely resembled a holiday. And in a way, I was right.
Lantau, the only way to go
Upon checking booking.com and its meagre offer of guesthouses I immediately knew that the only place where I might feel like I’m travelling was Lantau. It ticks all the necessary boxes – It’s huge, far, green and diverse. Let’s go!
Tai O – Lantau Staycation 1
From my previous posts you know that I love this place. From the entire Hong Kong this is the last gem of a place one can find here. Traditions still alive, small community, no crowds – that is if you are smart and avoid weekends, and peak hours.
Some people hate Tai O for it’s too commercial and busy, they claim. I must disagree. Tai O is a small maze, a traditional stilt village that gets a bad rep because of people who simply don’t understand that this community needs to somehow make their ends meet if they are to preserve its vibe. So yes, some parts get busy and have shops that cater to tourists, but those who claim they don’t like it probably haven’t ventured past the main areas. In fact, Tai O is very similar to Pulau Ketam, my most favourite fishing village in Malaysia. That’s perhaps also why I’m so fond of Tai O, because it reminds me so much of my beloved Pulau Ketam.
Oh, Malaysia, you were so kind to me. Forgive me if I ever took you for granted.
Staycation in Tai O was the best idea I could have come up with. Since getting to the village involves a boat and a bus ride, you get the feeling of being on a journey fairly quickly. It takes time to get there which is probably for the best. Arriving late in the afternoon provides an opportunity for catching sunset and once the day-tripping crowds disappear, you get to see the beauty of this place.
Local style eating
After a day spent in the scorching heat, it’s time for dinner in some of the local shops. Cheap fried rice, a can of beer and a sensation of simplicity that renders you ultimately happy is in full swing. That’s what I like. Low-key, no embellishment, no fuss, no snobbism, just a local dinner spot with a handful of residents and news in Putonghua blasting from TV hung in one of the upper wall corners. Yeah. Anthony Bourdain would’ve certainly given me a high five here!
Fine dining in Tai O
Once I however discovered the Tai O Lookout restaurant, I was sold. Amazing food – check. Lovely vibe – check. Kronenburg on tap – check. As you can imagine, I never went to that cheap fried rice spot again or any other local food spot for that matter. I just couldn’t resist. The menu had all I loved. The quality was great and the prices reasonable. When you add the view, overlooking the northwest tip of the island and the fact that the restaurant is in a traditional building that serves as a hotel nowadays, you simply can’t afford not to include this place in your Tai O gourmet itinerary.
I can honestly tell you that exploring Tai O in July is hard-core. The heat is unbearable but this is probably what also contributes to the feeling of being on holiday. I managed to do my hiking and walks in the morning. The afternoons I spent in the Lookout and before sunset I ventured back to the streets, mainly to observe and shoot what I love most – day-to-day life and locals going about.
No photos please
On the one hand Tai O is a photographer’s dream despite the infamous aversion of locals to being photographed. On the other hand, their unwillingness to appear in photos might make it impossible for you to get any close-ups or real-life portraits. Tai O’s residents really hate it and the only way to get a great shot of a local is to be an insider or have one walk with you.
Where to stay
Accommodation options are not exactly abundant here but the Espace Elastique is probably the best guesthouse in the area. It’s in the centre of everything and at a reasonable price. It’s spotlessly clean, spacious, and there are many perks to staying there. For me it was the freely available – and delicious! – snacks and coffee that you could grab any time of the day. It really came in handy for my early morning hikes when the town was still asleep and I wouldn’t be able to find anything open. While it isn’t flawless, it’s indeed one of the best shots if you want to enjoy Tai O and not have your wallet bleed.
Right next to the guesthouse are a couple of lovely cafes. But my go-to spot was Solo. Along with the Tai O Lookout this was my ultimate chilling spot. Smooth coffee, refreshing drinks, tasty tiramisu, simply a great little hunger-killer. While the menu didn’t feature a dizzying selection of food and snacks, it was perfectly enough.
In fact, it is the ambience that makes this place special. It has a terrace so whatever you drink or eat comes with an excellent view of life along the river. Don’t expect too picturesque scenes though. It’s about getting the vibe of the whole village. Another reason why I loved going to this cafe is the arts and crafts shop attached to it. What’s more, the owner was kind enough to appreciate my regular visits by giving me a free coffee refill. Quite uncommon to see that nowadays.
Thirst to learn more
Another reason why this cafe is special is the fact that it opened me a door to a better understanding of locals’ life. Ever since I set my foot in Tai O, I’ve always been wondering about the history of the place, the stories of local residents and penetrating into their way of living. I got many answers to my question in Solo cafe. The owner noticed my camera and a keen interest in capturing Tai O and during one of my visits at the cafe placed a recently published book about the village in front of me. He didn’t mean to sell it. He just thought it would pique my interest. What an astute observation. When I said I wanted to buy the book, the owner was so happy that he offered more than a friendly discount to me. I was ecstatic to finally read more about the history of this place and the way people have lived there. The book has answered many of the questions I had about this unique town.
Tai O – Love stories of the fishing village
While the title might be misleading, the book reveals plenty of aspects of this cute village from the modest beginnings to today’s life. You won’t find out about love stories but you’ll get to know that prostitution was one of the ways to make ends meet for local people. While men lived on the sea, girls used to be sold as prostitutes either in Tai O or they were sent to brothels in Hong Kong Island. My curiosity was sparked even more when I read that apart from salt fields and the famous shrimp paste production, which is still alive on the island, opium trade and Triad operations (i.e. mafia and gangs) were pretty common here too.
You’ll also learn about a big fire that almost destroyed the village and how locals dealt with poverty, attacks of pirates and other unavoidable events. The book confirms that the place certainly has its deal of history and it might also explain why locals are so tough and resilient. But of course to me one of the most valuable things the book offers is the absolutely wonderful photos that capture the essence of the local life so well. It’s exactly the style of photography I love. I wish I could emulate some of the photos too, but like I said, outsiders rarely get a chance. So at least I have the book as a source of inspiration.
Photography my love
On the last day the photography spirit rewarded me with an excellent opportunity to take shots that would boost my confidence a great deal. Sometimes it’s just really about being at the right time in the right place. As I was aimlessly stepping around one of the usual streets, trying to grab some unique shots, I noticed a lovely lady taking a shot of the sunset too. Voilà – and one of my most favourite photos from the Tai O trip was born.
Tai O is a little gem suitable for both a day trip and a staycation. It has a moderate amount of pleasant hikes that are not difficult and offer different glimpses and angles of panoramic views. But, I’d say that a 3-night stay is really the right amount of time to enjoy this place. In fact, I believe I could handle even more. It’s also the fact that every part of the day just strolling around offers another type of scenery. Tai O simply never disappoints.
Tung Chung – Lantau Staycation 2
Upon returning from Tai O, I just had a couple days before returning to Lantau – oh yeah, you read that right! This time to the other side of the island for a completely different style of staycation. You see, Lantau is so huge that each side of the island can be treated as a standalone holiday destination. By the same token, each of them will offer a different set of experiences. Many people will mention going to the beach as one of the options. I totally wouldn’t recommend that unless swimming in a cesspool is your thing. Forgive me Lantau, forgive me Hong Kong but beach holiday ain’t your forte. The waters surrounding Hong Kong are so dirty that you’d have to be really brave to dip in. Some people, foreigners and expats alike, do so, skilfully ignoring rubbish and strange colouring of a questionable origin, but I simply can’t do this. Years of exposure to pristine beaches in Greece and Asia have set the bar so high that even hearing about a trip to the beach in Hong Kong makes me cringe. Guess it’s about preferences and principles.
Hiking and forest
Therefore the only way to go was to go on a staycation geared towards connecting with the Mother Nature. As limited as the options were, I managed to find a quite ‘unique’ guesthouse, tucked in the lush forests of a small village. What immediately draw me to it was the open design with large glass windows that allowed you to observe the beautiful surroundings. High rise apartment buildings on the horizon and lush greenery at your doorstep. What a combination!
Staycation or Rulecation
The guesthouse was really spot on. Beautiful and unusual. Exactly what I needed. Secluded and yet close to restaurants. The only problem this little gem has is Terry, its owner. Terry is unique too. As a true Hong Konger he loves rules above anything and therefore every inch of his guesthouse is burdened with dos and don’ts that Terry loves to share with you whenever he can. In fact, he will already send you a list of rules before you arrive to make sure they sink in properly. There are rules for using the room. Switch this on and switch that off, book your kitchen slot, don’t use this cloth for dishes, use this for that, remove shoes here and arrange them like this. I mean Holy Mishmash!
Give me a break
As you can understand Terry and I didn’t exactly hit it off. I am cynical to the bone and honestly, since day 1 of my life in Hong Kong I have had a hard time adjusting to this robotic, monotone and inside the box culture where people are carefully programmed and what’s worse they love it. When you have to deal with that at work or in life on a daily basis, you are like ‘Okay, I’ll try my best’. It totally drains your energy and drives you to burnout more often than not, so you really need to be very flexible and manage your emotions. But when it happens on holiday? You are like. What the bloody hell! In Tai O there were rules too but Terry’s guesthouse clearly surpassed it on many levels.
Terry named his guesthouse City Oasis. Terry, you are so off. To stop questioning the obvious mismatch I gave the guesthouse a more appropriate label. After some lengthy and repeated discussions about the opening times of the kitchen when Terry simply didn’t understand or didn’t want to understand that I wasn’t interested in booking the kitchen at all but I needed access to it early in the morning to make myself a cup of coffee, I decided that I would need not only to find my way around the rules but also avoid Terry as plague.
Kitchen booking anyone? That won’t be necessary
The situation was even exacerbated by the fact that Terry used his kitchen as a base camp for his several cats and therefore the rules logically multiplied. Terry wouldn’t mind that his cats were walking everywhere and the cupboards as well as surfaces would be covered in hair. But he would mind very much if you used a different cloth for cleaning specific areas. I didn’t tell Terry I was brutally allergic to cats because I know most cat owners are so brainwashed by their cat ownership that they take it too personally. Therefore, I circumvented his carefully designed Alcatraz system by sneaking into his kitchen and temporarily stealing a coffee cup, spoon, and a stock of coffee for three days. I also decided that I’d try really hard not to see him again during my staycation.
The lecture goes on
But when I went for shopping and returned with a juicy watermelon which I bought on the spur of the moment, I quickly realised I’d need a knife. Sadly this meant bumping into Terry and asking him for help. He used this opportunity to find out when and why I bought the melon, and to give me a lecture about knives, their respective places in the kitchen and mode of use and return, including highlighting the proper cloth to wipe it with. Terry was simply working very hard to make me dislike him more and more. The bloke couldn’t help himself.
Once I got, however, through this initial rule battle, and figured out how to have the most minimal exposure to Terry, the exploring could begin. The area offered plenty of amazing hiking trails and quite spectacular views. Firstly, the guesthouse is located near the Ngong Ping Cable car. This is one of my most favourite attractions in Hong Kong. Watching it from afar was great but watching it from a short distance was something else. Little did I know however to what lengths one must go, literally, to benefit from the breathtaking views.
Inexperienced but resolved
As far as hiking is concerned, unlike Hong Kongers I do not burn with passion for this pastime. While I am athletic and sporty, and I love walking, the idea of exploring faraway and complicated trails leaves me totally unfazed. That logically means that I was heavily unprepared for the trail I was about to tackle – the infamous Ngong Ping Rescue Trail. Why infamous? Apparently this is as hard as it gets. There are few other similarly challenging trails. Terry said it would take around two hours. But I should have known that Terry was a weirdo with highly altered perception of the surrounding world. To be fair though, had he told me the truth, I probably wouldn’t have gotten down to it. Who knows.
The Ngong Ping 360 Rescue Trail
As a hiking rookie I quickly understood that I set off with a high degree of unpreparedness that could – and in fact it did – turn this experience into a nightmarish hike where thirst and sun would be my greatest enemies. I quickly realised that with a small 700ml bottle of water, which I almost finished during the first 800m the joke was on me. I constantly toyed with the idea to return back. I wanted to give up so badly. That’s also because of another rookie mistake I made – not using sunscreen. Since it was cloudy that day, I thought it was redundant. Leaving sunglasses behind was another a flop. Big mistake. The only thing I did right was outfit and thank God I at least I packed two bananas.
First off, this is not a family walk. Forget about a leisurely experience. This hike sets the tone right from the start. It’s stairs, stairs, stairs and steep ascent. At least for the first half – that is the largest part of the hike. The only way I managed to win over myself and talk me out of returning was the fact that I took long breaks, oftentimes sitting on the steep stairs and catching breath with head placed in between my legs. When my water almost finished, I also needed to economise and take minimal sips to avoid being left without water later uphill. But for all this I was rewarded with breathtaking views and awesome photographic opportunities. It was worth the pain and sunburnt by all means. It’s true I walked on fours later and if anybody saw that from the cable car cabins I am sure they had a laugh, but it helped me tackle the last ascent of the trail. My legs were already like stones.
Reaching the turning point was awesome. Massive feeling of victory not only over the bloody trail but also myself. Really one of the greatest achievements in hiking. And probably also the only one I’ll be able to ever brag about. After the peak, the hike is a breeze and many other small trails open up at this point. But I am sure those won’t be documented by me unless something extraordinary happens and my inclination to hiking drastically improves. Thanks for the opportunity but I don’t think we’ll see each other again.
Once you start descending, the path will take you to the Ngong Ping village. As you can imagine the first thing I did was buy loads of liquids and indulge. In fact, I was a spectacle for a few day trippers at a stall who stared at me with their jaws dropped as I downed a large bottle of water in one go. This reminded me of the terrible bicycle trip in Phu QuocPhu Quoc, where my exhaustion levels were similar. The Ngong Ping Rescue Trail was a tad better though.
Double the challenge
If you’re still game after this brutal hike you can climb the Big Buddha too. Luckily it was being repaired and so I was sadly forced to skip it. But I can assure you that had it been open I would have challenged myself with this one too. The best part of the trip is proceeding to the Ngong Ping cable car and buying a ticket for return. Sweet. It was really interesting to watch the trail from above and recall difficult moments of my hike when I was physically there. Time of completion? 5 bloody hours. No, I really don’t think I’m going to do this again.
The next day logically called for a relaxing type of activity so I headed to the the other side of the island – the Lower Cheung Sha Beach. I have to be fair and thank Terry for this recommendation. The beach is famous for its chilled vibe and buffalos freely roaming there. Another amazing thing about Lantau and its lovely places is that you can get anywhere by bus. Love it! Of course as I said I didn’t go to the beach to swim but to soak up the atmosphere. This can be easily done in one of the restaurants sitting just right on the shore.
Spontaneous ideas are not always welcome
After a few drinks and food, I decided I would get spontaneous and take the first bus that would stop and ride wherever it would take me. I jumped on the first minibus and looked forward to enjoying the misty atmosphere of the rainy day. However, after passing by some points which seemed like too much out of my radius I realised I was actually going in the direction of Tai O. While I really love this place the last thing I wanted was to end up at the same place I had left only a couple days back. So without any hesitation I got off at the next station – Shek Pik Reservoir. Lucky me. Beautiful scenery, fresh air, mist washing your face. I felt a sudden energy boost that propelled me to explore this part of the island more
Not meant to be
As I crossed the street and scanned the panorama I noticed a solitary fisherman in the distance. It looked so serene that I decided to descend toward him and take a couple lovely shots. I completely ignored the fact that it was quite a downhill and that the roads were also slippery as hell after the rain. Result? My absent-minded state admiring the freshness of the air combined with wearing sandals did their job and before I knew it I was on the ground with one of my feet flexed under my butt nicely sliding on the road downhill. When I managed to lift myself up I almost fell back to the ground. Blood was leaking from my knee and instep like crazy. I guess I was lucky as my unbelievable fall was spotted by a random runner who quickly rushed to the rescue and kindly helped me get back to the same bus stop. This is the good side of Hong Kongers. They will help and won’t flee the scene. So there I was. Taking the same bus going back literally ten minutes later. No romantic shots taken, no extra memories created. Gutted.
Strict rules, but first aid? Back to Alcatraz
On my way to the guesthouse I informed Terry that I had a minor accident and asked him to prepare the first aid kit for me. I had assumed that based on his obsession with rules and procedures he would have a huge kit with all I’d need to treat my wounds. But Terry didn’t disappoint. With this typical plain and uniform tone, he responded that his guesthouse wasn’t equipped with a kit or any kind of medical material for that matter and if my injury required it I should go to the hospital. Now I really felt uncontrollable anger. Oh bugger, Terry! I silently shouted on the inside upon reading his dry and emotionless message and seriously hoped I wouldn’t see him when returning to the guesthouse. But that was a naive thought.
Emotionless and robotic
As I appeared on the porch Terry violently emerged from his beloved kitchen and started impatiently questioning me. He wanted to know exactly where, when and how the accident happened. He wanted me to show him the way I fell and to make it easier he mimed different possible positions, hoping I’d nod or help him understand my incident. I stared at him with a huge degree of disbelief. It felt like he was police and I committed a crime that required diligent investigation. I decided I’d ignore him but it brought no relief to me.
Terry’s true colours
Once his gaze however became fixed on the injury itself, which wasn’t difficult to do, given my leg and foot was covered in blood which kept spurting steadily, he suddenly stopped asking stupid questions and shifted his focus abruptly. Staring at my gory wounds he became pale and severely concerned. His face became suddenly frozen as he had undergone botox. I knew immediately what was going on. Terry realised that I was going to the room in this state and I could possibly leave bloody stains everywhere. First, it was against the rules and second it was also not in line with the stringent Covid-19 protocol. Terry was dumbfounded. I took this lovely opportunity of Terry’s momentary software error, placed my shoes on the prescribed shelf and abruptly slammed the door of the house before his eyes saying that I was in pain and needed to treat my wound. I am pretty sure he stood down there for another five minutes trying to process what had just happened. Luckily for me, this was the last time I saw Terry. I managed to sneak out early in the morning without talking to him anymore.
Take it as a sign
When I imagine that I wanted to prolong my staycation I guess the accident was a message from karma telling me that another night in Terry’s Alcatraz wouldn’t be a good idea. Perhaps it was also a punishment for the banana peels that I threw into the forest the previous day on my gruelling hike. I know, I know. Like many of us I thought banana peels, being a bio material, were harmless to the nature around us. But the opposite is true. And if I take into account the fact that I also managed to scold a customer service representative in my bank via email complaining about their pre-historic services, it seemed, overall, that it was supposed to be yet another lesson for me. You already know that it didn’t go that smoothlyit didn’t go that smoothly but hey c’est la vie.
Overall, it was a memorable staycation by all means. I remember every single detail of it as if it had happened just yesterday. I guess that’s what counts. The grueling hike and victory over myself, the meaningless conversations with Terry, the accident that wrapped it all up. It was all etched into my memory. Life is definitely not boring here.
Hong Kong, pretending to be another Alcatraz for two long years, has finally opened its gates. It has also lifted the mask mandate. So there’s hope that it won’t be necessary to go through the same process again. Fingers crossed:) Have a fabulous time and summer guys wherever you are!